American doctoral students are finishing degree programs at a faster rate than at any time since 1983 -- and yet that remains a daunting seven years on average, according to the "Chronicle of Higher Education." The average completion time for a doctoral program varies according to the discipline, university and program. Science, engineering and math doctoral programs take up to seven years to complete on the average, while in education and the humanities disciplines, it can range up to nine or more years for completion.

Average Completion Time

The University of Southern California's social work program estimates an investment of four to five years based on the preliminary 48 course units. In contrast, the American Institutes for Research estimate that for doctoral programs in STEM disciplines such as science, engineering and math, candidates are likely to be facing an investment of six to seven years. The "Chronicle of Higher Education" reports that the time frame is longest in education, with many doctoral candidates taking close to 12 years to finish as they balance full-time work with the pursuit. Although university administrators have begun demanding more streamlined programs and have been enlisting program directors to figure out ways to reduce the time it takes to earn a doctorate, the process remains long.

The Steps Typically Involved

Typically, a doctoral student first completes a program of required, relevant coursework. Next, the student must complete comprehensive exams. After successfully passing them, the candidate begins his dissertation, which is likely to involve a case study, interviews or observation of subjects or the use of survey instruments. One of the last stages is the scheduling of an oral exam, conducted by faculty members of that academic department. The candidate then receives a result of "pass," "pass with qualification," or "fail." The "pass with qualification" verdict tends to happen most frequently and means that the candidate must make a few editorial changes to the dissertation.

Salary Averages for Professors

Actual payoffs inherent in such an investment depend largely on the graduate's discipline. According to data collected by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources, a full professor of business or marketing earns $118,344 yearly compared with an English professor's $82,840 in annual salary, at the time of publication. A full professor teaching in the biological sciences earns in a salary mid-point between these two examples -- about $96,241 at the time of publication. A promotion to full professorship typically occurs after serving as an assistant or associate professor for several years at a lower rate of pay.


Matt Schonlau of Ontario's University of Waterloo advises a realistic attitude toward the dissertation and entering the process with no notions of producing a groundbreaking or significant work. "Very few researchers achieve fame because of their dissertation work," he reports. He encourages doctoral candidates to lower their expectations somewhat and focus on producing a serviceable dissertation instead of a stellar one. Before attempting to earn a doctorate, understand the expense, investment of time and scarcity of positions outside of academia -- so that you can make the best choice for your future.